The heart of darkness

02 November 2006

POLAND is where the great killing began. The most terrible of all wars. I was there this year as Lent was beginning. In one week I traversed all the 40 days to Easter. I visited hell and I rediscovered heaven.

Warsaw more than any other city — more even than Hiroshima — is a monument to death and resurrection. In 1939, 1944 and 1945 bitter battles raged in the city. Finally, what was left of it was dynamited block by block by the retreating SS troops. These men, with the skull and crossbones on their helmets, were faithful to their insignia. Death was their business. Men. Like us. Like it or not, our brothers.

Warsaw stands again. A proud monument to man’s triumph over destruction. A city lovingly reconstructed, its older parts in perfect 18th-century style. Where once thousands of walled-in Jews perished in the ghetto, there stand tall, gay blocks of flats. Children play where children were murdered.

But history has known other Warsaws. My Lenten pilgrimage took me beyond it: south through deep snow to Auschwitz, to the place where the apparently impossible had become macabre reality. Here four million of us were brutally — worse than that, methodically and scientifically — murdered. To walk through this place is to know that hell is not a future possibility but a present reality, in man. It is to know the same of heaven. They coexist in the present.

I stood in the concrete enclosure where 10,000 children unknowingly — or all too knowingly — were gassed. Yesterday’s Holy Innocents.

That chamber was built for children only. The great mount of their shoes is still there for all to see. And their clothes. Even their toys.

The chemists had by experiment discovered that four pounds of Cyclon B crystals suffice to kill 1500 people. It required many tins marked with the skull and crossbones to kill millions. The four great incinerators could not devour all this human flesh. The fires of hell could not burn us all. And so we were thrown into great pits dug before by us.

There is much more than this at Auschwitz. Its impact is beyond emotion. Bales of human hair and also the finished product, lengths of coat lining. And the many, many gallows. The barbed wire, electrified, into which men ran to end it all. And the punishment-block — a medieval torture chamber with 20th century refinements. Empty now. The blood-stained floors dry.

I stood, too, in the cell in which it is known that heaven triumphed. Maximilian Kolbe lived there without food for weeks, the cell filled with hostages condemned to death by starvation. Kolbe had asked to go there in place of a man with children. He was a Franciscan monk. The last in the cell to die. He prayed and sang until his resurrection dawned. The crucifix and Madonna he scratched in the wall with his nails remain there.

There were other Maximilian Kolbes. Their names no one lives to remember. Jews, Communists, Christians, one in their martyrdom for humanity.

My young Polish guide, a charming girl of about 18 hoping to study English at Cracow University, took me to the light of day, back through the camp gates with their ironic inscription — “Work liberates”. It was more true than the German masters had known. The work done here in slavery ended in death: freedom.

“IN the confines of my cell,” wrote Hoess who had ruled over this kingdom of death, “I have come to the bitter realisation what atrocious crimes against humanity I have committed. I pay with my life for this responsibility. I wish and hope that the fact of my having admitted and disclosed all these crimes will, for ever after, prevent the arising of even the remotest possibility of such atrocities occuring again.”

Because men still plan for hell while they hope for heaven, the possibilities of recurrence today are not remote. And we are all guilty. And Christ has taken our guilt upon himself and will suffer it until we accept and share his forgiveness.

This article was originally published in the Church Times on 9 April 1965, soon after the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

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